Van Halen famously banned brown M&Ms from the dressing room at their concerts. It was a red flag—a way they could quickly tell that something was wrong. They needed to step back, take a closer look at what was going on, and make sure everything was on track.
How can you identify the early warning signs? How can you identify a problem early enough that you can still do something about it?
Let me give you an example. This is something that I do frequently. (Honestly, more frequently than I’d like to admit.)
Let’s say you’ve just finished a task. Or maybe you’ve gotten interrupted—you’ve just come back from a break, grabbing lunch, stretching your legs, whatever.
It’s time to check your task list so you can remind yourself what you need to be working on.
So you pull out your planner and review your tasks for the day. Then you ask yourself, “Now what do I really need to be working on?”
That’s a red flag. You’re not keeping one task list at that point, but two. You have the carefully curated list of tasks that looks good on paper, but doesn’t completely capture all of the tasks that you need to do. Those other tasks are swimming around in your head.
Maybe there things that are too small and trivial to write down. You don’t want to spend the time, energy, and ink it would take to write them down. (That’s fair—the two-minute rule exists for a reason, but only applies when you complete that task right away. If you save the task for later, write it down.)
Maybe you don’t want anyone to know about the task if they see your planner. Maybe you don’t want to be reminded of the task long-term.
Whatever the reason, keeping this separate mental list will derail your plans for the day if you let it.
- You can’t stop thinking about what you’re not getting done. Your brain knows that you don’t have these important tasks written down and you’ll forget about them if you stop thinking about them. So your brain reinforces this mental task list by constantly reviewing it.
- You have way too much to do. Estimation is hard. When you refuse to put all your tasks in one place, it’s impossible. You need a complete view of all the demands on your time (including meetings). Once you know how much time you have, you will have a better sense of how much you can accomplish.
- You’re frustrated that you can’t get anything done. Whichever list you’re working from, you know the other list is there. Even if you get all the way through one list, you won’t feel satisfied with your results. If you put everything on a single, written list, you’ll have a record of what you’ve done.
When you catch yourself keeping a “real” task list that’s separate from the “official” task list, that’s a sign that you don’t trust your plan for the day. Take a few minutes to create a new plan you can trust.
Do a brain dump. Get everything out of your head. Every “oh, right, I need to ______” thought—write it down.
Once all your tasks are in one place, you might have more than you can do today. That’s okay. Prioritize the unified list. Some written tasks will get deferred to make room, and some mental tasks just needed captured so you can remember to do them later.
If you don’t trust the plan you came up with, throw it out. Plans are easy to change. You’re instinctively trying to revise it, so go with it! Revise your plan as often as it takes to get it right.
When you trust your system, including your plan for the day, you will be more relaxed. You’ll feel more confident that you can create and execute a plan. You’ll spend less time worrying about what you have to do and spend more time doing what you want to do.
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